On September 5th, 2007 Four F-15 and F-16 fighter aircrafts departed from separate Air Force bases in Israel. They followed the Western Coastline flying North, crossed the border with Lebanon, and headed East toward the Syrian-Turkish border. Using advanced stealth technologies, they blinded the Syrian radar, and at some point between 00:00 and 00:30 dropped 17 tons of explosives on what was suspected to be a nuclear facility located in the Deir ez-Zor Governorate, in the Far East of Syria. Shortly after, Israeli Air Force (IAF) pilots communicated the code word ‘Arizona’ back to Israeli headquarters, which indicated that operation ‘Outside the Box’ had been completed. Last March, after more than 10 years of silence and strict censorship, Israel admitted striking Syria's nuclear reactor.
This attack, and many others that followed it, were all part of a new policy employed by Israel, namely, the ‘no comment’ policy. Israel’s no comment policy dictates that the security establishment refrain from claiming responsibility for or refusing to comment on attacks it has carried out. The policy was employed in order to strike a balance between Israel’s need to hinder its enemies from acquiring tie-breaking weapons on the one hand, and its aversion to full-scale war on the other. So far, the no comment policy has proven highly effective for Israel, as in the vast majority of cases, missions were completed, and retaliation successfully averted.
The no comment policy is most effective when three specific conditions are in place: First, the enemy country has an interest not to engage in all-out war. Second, the no comment policy is particularly successful when employed in countries where freedom of the press is not protected, such that the leadership in both countries can control the message conveyed to the public, often via censorship and suppression. As such, the leadership of the attacked state can order the local media to report false information while the aggressor state can enforce censorship and prevent incriminating information from being released. Finally, when the victim country or organization has its own interest in keeping the attack under wraps, usually due to a violation of international law. By promoting a narrative that nothing of importance had happened the attacked state averts investigation by third parties.
The aftermath of the IAF’s destruction of the Syrian nuclear facility in Deir ez-Zor Governorate on September 2007 proved the efficacy of the no comment policy. Following the operation, for an entire month, no Israeli official agreed to provide a statement relating to the attack assuming that Syria, as well as its allies, Hezbollah and Iran, would use Israel’s denial as an opportunity to avoid an unwanted war. On October 2nd, almost a month after the attack, the Israeli Military Censorship Department released the following statement: ‘Aircrafts from the IAF attacked a target deep inside Syrian territory, on the night before 6 September’.
The fascinating thing is that the Israeli Military Censorship Department released this statement one day after Bashar al-Assad was interviewed by the BBC and had stated that the Israelis bombed an ‘unused military building’. It seems that the Israelis were waiting to see whether or not Assad intended to react, and after he gave his statement, the Israelis understood that Assad preferred a narrative suggesting that the attack caused no significant damage.
Israel’s response to the attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor was markedly different from its response to the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. After Operation Opera, which destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor, the Israeli government, headed by PM Menachem Begin, immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. In a public speech covered by local and international media several days afterwards, PM Begin (1981) stated that ‘the [Iraqi] atomic reactor has been destroyed, it’s gone, and there won’t be any others in the future… we took actions in order to save our nation, and more importantly, our children… a new era has begun, no more retaliation but preventive initiative, we will come for them… and will not wait for them to come to us’. This attitude became known as the Begin Doctrine; Israel would not allow enemy states to develop WMD, and would work to prevent this eventuality, even at the cost of potential war.
The successful bombing of the nuclear facility in Syria strengthened Israel’s confidence in its new policy, thus, it was expanded to target Iran and Sudan for the first time. In January 2009, Israel attacked Sudan, intercepting an arms convoy suspected of transporting Fajr-5 rockets with a 75-kilometer-range. The convoy was intercepted in the eastern part of Sudan while heading north near the Red Sea, close to the Egyptian border. As Michael Gordon and Jeffrey Gettleman pointed out in the New York Times, the attack was carried out by the IAF with the assistance of Israeli Special Forces who detected the arrival of the shipment in the Port of Sudan and tracked it on its way to the Egyptian border. Two months later, a U.S. official confirmed that indeed it was the IAF that had perpetrated the attack.
Israel, having grown even more comfortable with its new policy, then began to attack Hezbollah, an organization known for cruel retaliation. Israel started attacking weapon convoys in Lebanon and in Syria that were transporting ‘game changer’ weapons to the organization. According to Amos Yadlin, the then head of IDF Military Intelligence Directorate, examples of ‘game changer’ weapons were chemical weapons, Iranian Fateh-110 surface-to-surface missiles with a range of 200 km, Russian P-800 Oniks or ‘Yakhont’, a supersonic anti-ship missile with a range of 600 km, and the Soviet 9K37 also known as SA-17, medium-range surface-to-air missile system with a range of 22 km.
Weapons convoys were intercepted from the air, sea and land in Syrian and Lebanese territory, sometimes with the help of Special Forces on the ground. On January 31st, 2013 the IAF attacked an arms convoy in the Rif Dimashq Governorate of Syria. According to David Sanger, Eric Schmitt and Jodi Rudoren from The New York Times, U.S. officials confirmed that indeed it was the IDF that attacked, and that the convoy was transporting SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon along with other weapons. On February 24th, 2014, as reported in foreign media, the IAF carried out yet another attack on a weapons convoy. The convoy, which was suspected of transporting advanced surface-to-surface missiles of Fateh-110 and SA-17, was attacked while in Lebanese territory, near the town of Baalbek in Beqaa Valley.
The Israelis perceived military bases as legitimate targets. According to Uzi Mahmaini and Flora Bagenal from The Sunday Times, on October 23rd, 2012 the IAF bombed the ‘Yarmouk’ military facility, located in south Khartoum, Sudan. The attack was carried out by two F-15 fighter aircrafts, each carrying two one-ton bombs and covered by four F-15 aerial combat aircraft. The squadron was accompanied by two CH-53 helicopters with fighters from the heliborne Combat Search & Rescue (CSAR) extraction unit, ‘669’, and by a Gulfstream 550 jet aircraft, which carried advanced electronic warfare equipment that blocked Sudanese radar systems. The ‘Yarmouk’ military facility was suspected to be an Iranian-sponsored weapons factory built to enable the free movement of arms to Hamas in Gaza. The bombing targeted a group of 40 containers that were situated in the backyard of the factory.
Other type of operations identified with Israel's no comment policy were assassinations. Assassination operations are generally a cooperative effort by the IAF, the IDF Special Forces and the Mossad. The Mossad, formally known as The Israeli National Intelligence Agency, is the dominant actor in this domain, and has been at the forefront of executing assassinations on behalf of the State of Israel since its establishment in the 1950s. Generally, Israeli officials do not claim responsibility for any Mossad operations. However, alleged assassinations carried out in the framework of the no comment policy differ from others in terms of the sheer number of executions carried out, the method of implementation and the fact that they target government officials. In addition, the no comment policy involved more extensive use of IDF Special Forces units.
On August 1st, 2008 U.S. files leaked by Edward Snowden, a former employee at the CIA who leaked classified NSA information, revealed that the Israeli Naval Commando unit, Shayetet 13, assassinated General Muhammad Suleiman. General Suleiman was Bashar al-Assad’s top security aide who oversaw Syria’s nuclear program and had orchestrated weapon transfers to Hezbollah in Lebanon. While the General was hosting a dinner party at his seaside villa in Tartous in Syria, snipers emerged from the sea and shot Suleiman multiple times in the head and neck, killing him immediately.
According to Duncan Gardham from The Telegraph, on January 18th, 2010 a Mossad hit team landed in Dubai using fake British, Irish, German and French passports. Their target was Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, who co-founded Hamas’ military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. On January 19th, 2010 five hours after al-Mabhouh’s arrival in Dubai, the hit squad broke into his room at the al-Bustan Rotana hotel and subdued and suffocated him before promptly leaving Dubai for various countries. In another case, according to a U.S official, on January 31st, 2013 Hassan Shateri, an Iranian General of the Revolutionary Guards, was assassinated by the IAF while leading an arms convoy from Syria to Lebanon.
The no comment policy’s role in assassination operations is best exemplified by the alleged Mossad’s assassination campaign against Iranian nuclear scientists. From 2010 to 2012, there were five recorded assassinations of Iranian scientists, all of which occurred in Tehran. Masoud Alimohammadi, an Iranian physics professor, and Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, an Iranian nuclear scientist, were both killed by booby-trapped vehicles near their cars. Majid Shahriari, an Iranian nuclear engineer at the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, was killed by an assailant who attached a bomb to his car. Darioush Rezaeinejad, an Iranian nuclear scientist, was killed by an armed assailant riding by on a motorcycle. As Gaietta from Springer pointed, Fereydoon Abbasi was the only scientist who survived the Mossad’s attempt to assassinate him by jumping out of his car before an explosive device could be detonated.
The campaign against the Iranian scientists differed from previous Mossad led assassination campaigns in two ways. First, in the previous attacks, the tactics employed were highly unsophisticated, and their efficacy was low. For instance, in the 1950s, Israel carried out Operation Damocles that targeted scientists and technicians formerly employed in Nazi Germany who helped Egypt develop its rocket program. As pointed by Isser Harel, the then head of the Mossad, in his book The Crisis of the German Scientists, the Mossad, then in its infancy, conducted an amateur campaign that primarily relied on letter bombs and abductions. Innocent civilians such as the scientists’ secretaries and family members were injured upon opening the letter bombs, while the targeted scientists were largely unscathed. In the case of Israel’s alleged campaign against the Iranian nuclear scientists, the Mossad used smart bombs and recruited agents to carry out the assassinations, ultimately yielding a remarkably high success rate.
Second, in the previous campaigns, assassinations were carried out directly by Mossad agents in neutral countries. For example, in the 1980s, according to various foreign and local sources, the Israeli Mossad targeted scientists and technicians who worked on Saddam Hussein’s WMD projects in Iraq. In their book Shadow Wars, Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman reveal that the Mossad was instructed to launch a campaign of intimidation and, if necessary, assassination in order to drive the nuclear scientists from Iraq. On June 14th, 1980 a Mossad hit team assassinated Egyptian nuclear scientist Yahya El Mashad, who headed Hussein’s nuclear program, in his hotel room in Paris. Ten years later, artillery expert Gerald Vincent Bull, who headed Hussein's ‘superguns’ program also known as Project Babylon, was assassinated outside of his apartment in Brussels. Nevertheless, during the Iran campaign, most assassinations were carried out in the heart of enemy territory by locally recruited agents.
Cyber warfare is also one of the main pillars of Israel’s no comment policy, and unlike the military engagements discussed above, it constitutes a novel form of warfare in Israeli military history. In June 2010, a Belarusian computer security firm revealed a powerful cyberweapon that was used against Iran’s nuclear systems for uranium enrichment. The cyber weapon later came to be known as the ‘Stuxnet’ computer worm. According to Edward Snowden, Stuxnet was developed cooperatively between the Israelis and the Americans and was the first of its kind. Unlike other computer viruses, the main feature of the ‘Stuxnet’ computer worm was not to hijack computers or steal information, but to reprogram commands given to the Iranian nuclear-enrichment centrifuges. It caused the centrifuges to spin too quickly and tear themselves apart, resulting in the destruction of nearly 1,000 of Iran’s 6,000 centrifuges. The cyberattack severely delayed Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
In September 2011, the lab of cryptogrammic and systems protection of the University of Budapest for Technology and Economics revealed yet another computer worm that had infiltrated the Iranian nuclear systems, Duqu. The Duqu virus was not limited to Iranian nuclear systems. It was discovered in the computing systems of Iranian private companies, and in other countries including France, Britain and India. As pointed out by Boldizsar Bencsath, Gabor Pek, Levente Buttyan and Mark Felegyhazi from the Future Internet Journal, security experts from the American cyber security company Symantec concluded that the Duqu and Stuxnet worms were programmed by the same institution. However, while Stuxnet was designated to ruin command and control systems, Duqu was designed to steal information.
According to IDF Brigadier General and Former Commander of the Israeli Special Forces Directorate, ‘in the past, [the IDF] waited for the next war, and in the meanwhile was constantly occupied with preparing for it… Israel's new conflict management policy forces the army to constantly use its muscles in a dynamic environment, during both war and peace times… the purpose of the policy is to postpone the next war as much as possible. The majority of the measures [taken] are unknown [to the general public], yet they involve tremendous efforts.’ Indeed, the no comment policy did not seek to defeat the enemy, but rather, to postpone the next large-scale confrontation by weakening Israel’s opponents, preventing them from acquiring tie-breaking weapons and thwarting attacks-in-progress. To that end, Israel carried out air bombings, sabotage of military facilities and arms convoys, assassinations and cyber-attacks.
By evading responsibility for these attacks through the no comment policy, Israel sought to prevent countries and organizations from retaliating against Israel. While there were cases in the past where Israel employed such methods and did not claim responsibility for attacks, the no comment policy was particularly salient during the years after 2007 as a result of the growing preponderance of Hezbollah, the decline of nation-states in the Middle East following the Arab Spring, and Iran’s nuclear program.
The no comment policy required Israel to maintain a delicate balance: While on the one hand, the attacked side may prefer not to engage in war with Israel, on the other hand, there is a limit to how many attacks a country or an organization can sustain without retaliating. On the surface, Israel’s application of the policy achieved its desired outcome. The countries and organizations that Israel was compelled to attack over the years consistently took advantage of Israel’s denial to avoid the need to retaliate time and time again.
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Rudoren, J., Sanger, D. E. and Schmitt, E., (2013). ’Israeli Strike into Syria Said to Damage Research Site’, The New York Times, 3 February. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/04/world/middleeast/syrian-weapons-center-said-to-be-damaged.html?_r=1&
Yadlin, A., (2013). Confronting Enemy Military Intensification and Structural Changes: The Case of Transporting Advanced Weapons to Hezbollah. The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) Insight, 40(1), p.1-3. Available: http://www.inss.org.il/he/publication/%D7%90%D7%AA%D7%92%D7%A8-%D7%94%D7%94%D7%AA%D7%9E%D7%95%D7%93%D7%93%D7%95%D7%AA-%D7%A2%D7%9D-%D7%94%D7%AA%D7%A2%D7%A6%D7%9E%D7%95%D7%AA-%D7%95%D7%91%D7%A0%D7%99%D7%99%D7%9F-%D7%94%D7%9B%D7%95%D7%97/